Herat Theft Victims Drugged

Robbery-by-poison wave has residents worried and angry.

Herat Theft Victims Drugged

Robbery-by-poison wave has residents worried and angry.

Wednesday, 2 September, 2009
One evening last month vegetable seller Abdul Khaleq, 56, noticed a man in white clothes sitting in front of his cart, eating a watermelon. He offered Khaleq a piece. The next thing Khaleq remembers is waking up in a hospital bed.

The watermelon he ate was poisonous, the doctors told him. Soon Khaleq found out why. The man in the white clothes had taken all the money he had with him – 50 US dollars - as well as his mobile phone.

At least 56 men and five women with similar stories have been admitted to the Herat regional hospital during the last two months, according to director Sayed Naim Alemi.

“Most of them came from villages around Herat city,” he said.

Robbers drugging their victims first is not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan but the scale of the current wave is unusual, and has Herat residents worried and angry. Many say that they cannot trust the police, and have little hope that they will catch the criminals.

Waisuddin Talash, deputy head of Herat’s criminal investigation division, told IWPR that his department had received no complaints related to the robbery-and-poisoning incidents.

But Khaleq, the vegetable seller, insists that he went to the police and filed a report. Dr Ahmad Khaled, head of internal medicine at the Herat regional hospital, also told IWPR that the police had been notified.

“The poisoning victims were complaining that their money or belongings were stolen, so the criminal investigation police came and questioned them.”

The lack of action on the part of the police has convinced local residents that they cannot look for help from that quarter.

“The police are totally incompetent and even cooperate with some of the criminals,” said Firuz Ahmad Qayem, a male nurse at the hospital, reflecting a widely held view among the local population.

The police defend their record and say that they are doing their best to keep up with Herat’s spiralling crime.

“Since Herat is one of the biggest cities in Afghanistan, there is also a lot of crime,” said Colonel Noorkhan Nekzad, the police spokesman in Herat. Over the past two months, he added, Herat police had arrested 96 people for various crimes.

“We are making a very good effort,” he told IWPR. “We will never, ever let anybody disturb the peace and security of the population.”

But this is unlikely to placate the citizens of Herat.

“If the police are doing such a good job, why is there so much insecurity, and so many kidnappings and other incidents?” asked Herat resident Fazal Ahmad, a fruit seller. “We don’t trust the police. Their behaviour is inappropriate and violent towards the population.”

Herat, in western Afghanistan, has experienced an explosion in crime in recent years. Businessmen are kidnapped for ransom, robbery is not uncommon, and there is growing problem with insurgency. In recent weeks the Taleban took responsibility for a bomb attack in Herat that killed 12 and injured more than 20.

But it is this latest wave, which has targeted poorer residents, that seems to have set tempers flaring.

“I was on my way to the bazaar, when some guy gave me a date,” said Mir Tahir, 70. “When I ate it, I passed out. When I came to my senses, I went to the police, but they did not help me. I will never trust the police again.”

Until police catch the criminals, Herat residents are going to remain angry and suspicious.

“I am very careful about eating food now,” said Herat resident Abdul Qadir. “I also advise my children to take great care when they go to the bazaar.”

The best that the medical establishment can do is to try to publicise the cases, and advise people to seek help.

“If somebody eats the poison he will be unconscious for 24 hours,” said Dr Ahmad Khaled. “It is very important to get medical attention because people can die if vomit blocks their airways.” Medical experts suggest the substance is made in advanced laboratories. “We are waiting to get a sample from the police to investigate it,” added Khaled.

Meanwhile the local government is doing its best to keep the citizens of Herat informed, says Nematullah Sarwari, the director for information and culture.

“We have asked religious leaders and mullahs to inform people in the mosques. We will also increase our efforts to get the message out through the media outlets,” he said.

Some people in Herat blame the media for the problem. They say private TV channels screen films and serials that show viewers how to rob and murder people. “Nowadays all the serials on the TV show scenes in which people poison each other to get what they want,” said Abdul Salam, a Herat resident.

What inspired his father’s robbers, 14-year-old Basir Ahmad doesn’t know. He just knows that his 70-year-old father is now in hospital, and that the poison has left him seriously ill. Ahmad is standing next to his father’s bed. “We were having lunch in my father’s shop. Two people came in and started eating with us. After a while I stood up to help a customer. The next thing I remember was waking up and seeing that my father was unconscious. I checked the till and saw it was empty. They took 30,000 Afghanis (600 dollars) from us.”

Farooq Faizi is an IWPR trainee in Herat.
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